Munich Tracht and its History


Tracht Societies and other research obstacles

When I was about 16 years old and started developing an interest in the traditional dress of Munich, the Tracht, there was no Internet. Everyone around me thought that if you wanted to wear Tracht, you went to a specialised shop and bought a Dirndl, period. Others, who claimed to be wearing "real" Tracht, told me e.g. that "we in [insert town here] wear blue aprons and black bodices". Everyone, really? Hmmm.

I went to the city library and even the intimidatingly large, old and venerable Bavarian State Library. Nobody could tell me how credible the books were that I found, or how to find better ones. Most of the sources dealt with what I have meanwhile come to call Gebirgstracht (mountain tracht, see the page What exactly is Tracht?) and completely failed to mention that this "tradition" was only about a hundred years old. I already knew that the Tracht society in my hometown was not a good starting point: They called themselves Gebirgstrachtenverein, i.e. mountain Tracht society. The area around my hometown is as flat as a pan. And while is suspected that something was terribly wrong there, the Gebirgstrachtenvereine (some of which really are at home in the mointains) managed to obstruct my view for years. It was only when I began researching historical fashion that I learned, very slowly, that Tracht was never static, never as unchanging and completely disjunct from fashion as Tracht societies like to make it seem, but that it changed over time, keeping up with the general fashion.

A few years ago I found a an article in PDF format that outlined the development of mountain Tracht societies in a way that seemed plausible and – more importantly – well researched1. It was the first document I'd ever found that made no bones about the fact that the Tracht was that those societies claimed to preserve was, in fact, invented. I had already gotten that idea, but it was nice to have it confirmed. I'm not sure I'm up to translating it well, but here goes: "When the first Tracht societies were founded, a new form of Tracht was 'invented', the Gebirgstracht." Gebirgstracht is loosely based on the dress of early/mid 19th century Oberland, but the societies limited the choice of colours, fabrics and cut patterns so much that it became a kind of uniform. (E.g. blue apron, black bodice, see above.) In the words of Otto Dufter jun.: "The Tracht societies did not preserve the actual Tracht of the 19th century. Up until the foundation of the Tracht societies, Tracht had been subject to constant development and change. Those changes were considerably slowed or even prevented by the Tracht societies." 1 Could it be put more clearly?

The conclusion from the above is that if you ant to learn about "real", i.e. not invented, Tracht, you must ignore Gebirgstracht and Tracht societies. More so when researching the Tracht of Munich, a capital city on the plain. Articles in newspapers, jounals and on Wikipedia are also out because they suffer from the same obstructed view that I originally did, but unlike former Me, they don't know it and merrily present Gebirgstracht as something that "has always been that way", something that was really worn by real country folk in the past. One example, my pet peeve, is newspaper articles cropping up every year in the run-up to Oktoberfest, telling you that you could tell the marital status of a Dirndl-wearing woman by which side of her waist the apron was tied. Pictorial evidence from the 18th and early 19th century shows most aprons being tied in the centre front or without a visible tie. I have no idea who invented that "tradition", but it is repeated faithfully every year.

Knowing this, we can throw off a lot of ballast, but it also means starting over from square 1.


On the path to historical Tracht

Bodice with lacing hooks, c. 1760/70

Woman from Miesbach


As has been outlined on the page What exactly is Tracht?, there in not one Munich Tracht. Even though the clothing of common citizens was less subject to change than that of the upper crust, one can identify style changes over time. People imitated the nobility and upper class as far as money allowed, adopting a feature here and another there. Most features "trickled down" with a certain lag and some were abandoned with an even longer lag. In contemporary pictures you see e.g.

Frau Bögner from Tauberbischofsheim

Munich waitress

The dress styles of common folk usually adopted styles of international fashion with a some time lag. The sleeve cuffs that had been en vogue in France c. 1720-50, for instance, can be found in series of engravings depicting the styles of variaous South German cities as early as the 1730s, and presevered until about 1800. The time lag seems to diminish over time: From about 50 years in the 17th century to a few years in the early 19th, when the high waists of bodices mirrored Regency fashion.2 In the era known in Germany as Biedermeier (c 1825-40), fashon caught up with Tracht; traditional pieces of clothing were combined with fashonable leg o' mutton sleeves, hairdos, skirt length and shoes typical of the era. While the actuall parts of a dress ensemble (the stiff bodice, shift, skirt, cap, apron, kerchief) were kept, their shape (length and shape of skirt, shape of sleeves, height of waistline etc) followed the general fashion. Even the cap that is so typical of Munich Tracht, the Riegelhaube, changed in size and embroidery style.

Munich Tracht as preserved by two societies nowadays ("Lechler" and "Die schöne Münchnerin") is the style that was last worn in everyday life before dying out and becoming fossilised at the end of the Biedermeier era. Its basic features habve their roots in the 18th century: The Mieder (stiff bodice) is a descendant of the stays which originally had been worn hidden under the fashion clothing. Multi-stranded chokers may have descended from 18th century médicis (lace chokers) and taffeta ribbons worn high and tight, and were already around in the late 18th century. Another descendant of the same neckwear was a black ribbon with a silver filigree clasp in front, also worn since the late 18th. The (neck)kerchief or fichu had been around all through the 18th century. Finally, forerunners of the Riegelhaube can be found since at least the mid 18th century, e.g. on Mrs Bögner from Tauberbischofsheim, a place not far from the borders of modern Bavaria, but also nowhere near Munich.

The history of the bodice is especially interesting because, as I have pointed out, it was normally (i.e. in international fashion) worn as an undergarment, hidden under a robe or jacket. There are some hints that maybe Southern Germany was different in that respect. Not to the point that everyone always went around with the stays visible (otherwise it wouldn't just be hints), but... I used to have a copy of a late 17th century portrait of a Bavarian or Swabian woman wearing visible stays with lacing hooks, open over a wide V that I would normally expect to be filled in with a stomacher, but one could see the folds of her shirt through the gaps of the lacing chain. I wish I knew where I've put the copy, or the scan I must have made. There there are depictions of (presumably) young unmarried girls out in public in visible stays near Augsburg c. 1730, of haymakers in shifts and stays, stays with decorative silver hooks or gold lace that must have been meant to be seen, and the lady in the picture top left. She's clearly a lady of fashion and is probably wearing the Mieder as dress-up, maybe as a Bavarian version of shepherdess costume, but the must have got the idea somewhere. And then, after 1800, we see Mieder being worn as a top garment All. The. Time.

In the early 19th century, Munich Tracht seems to have been popular well beyond the city limits: Mieder closely resembling those worn in Munich could be found in the Oberland (e.g. Tegernsee valley, bottom left pic, and even in most varieties of Gebirgstracht); extant Riegelhauben have paper labels inside identifying their place of origin as Augsburg or Regensburg3, and I have recently found examples in Schärding, Austria.

From about 1840 on, Tracht by and by merged with "normal" fashion (probably helped along by the availability of fahion magazines (see What exactly is Tracht?) and was all but gone by the late 19h century. At the turn of the 19th/20th century, an extant Tracht ensemble was just good enough for dress-up, and I don't want to know how many items were just thrown away as oids Graffl (old rubbish).






1) Dufter jun., Otto, Tracht und Trachtenpflege
2) Szeibert-Sülzenfuhs, Rita. Die Münchnerinnern und ihre Tracht : Geschichte einer traditionellen Stadttracht als Spiegel der weiblichen Bürgerschicht. Dachau: Verlagsanstalt Bayernland, 1997
further reading: Laturell, Volker D. Trachten in und um München. Geschichte - Entwicklung - Erneuerung. München: Buchendorfer, 1998
3) Szeibert-Sülzenfuhs and private collection



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